The Tragedy of Sir Henry Thornton

The appointment of the Royal Commission on Railways and Transportation in 1931 spelled the end of Thornton. He was bullied into submitting his resignation the following summer by a group of Conservative MPs who became known as the Wrecking Brigade. He was also stripped of his pension in what one Liberal MP called “the rawest deal any man ever received from the Government of Canada.” Uncharacteristically timid, he had refused to fight back against the Bennett government at a critical hour. He sought to go quietly. When Liberal MPs called for the handing over of his personal papers, he burned them rather than have them used for political purposes.

On the night of August 1, 1932, Thornton and his wife boarded his radio- equipped private coach and departed Montreal’s Bonaventure Station for New York. In a series of final, spiteful moves, the Bennett government had strong-armed a major Canadian bank into removing him from their board and then poisoned his chance to head the Indian State Railways. He died, broke, of cancer in New York on March 14, 1933, the night he was to have been back in Canada for a dinner given by CNR employees. The railway unions were later credited with organizing massive campaigns against every member of the Wrecking Brigade and had the pleasure of watching them all go down to defeat, along with Bennett, in the 1935 federal election.

Ironically, when the Royal Commission released its report on the railways only six weeks after Thornton’s departure, it wasn’t as critical as had been expected. The CPR was held as culpable in its railway expansion as the CNR. The commissioners criticized some CNR spending, but pointed out that all expenditures had been approved by Parliament and it had not “exercised any appreciable restraint upon railway estimates placed before them.” To the CPR’s consternation, not a single negative word was written about CNR Radio.

Nor did the Bennett government deliver the fatal blow to Thornton’s radio program as the CPR had hoped. Bennett had previously been forced to distance himself from the CPR, largely because the public approved of Thornton’s work and was solidly opposed to a transportation monopoly in Canada. Bennett had even felt it necessary during the 1930 election campaign to reiterate the famous statement, “Competition ever: amalgamation never!”

The CPR’s advocacy of a network that would function largely as a national affiliate of NBC or CBS also worked against it. Bennett was a fierce nationalist. Several influential acquaintances who favoured the establishment of a government-owned national broadcasting system used this nationalism to their advantage. As his public popularity plunged, Bennett belatedly embraced the progressive policies which won Franklin D. Roosevelt the presidency in the U.S.